You just have to remember three things.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983

T e c h n o f i l e
Getting 'mystery files' to open with the right programs

April 27, 2008

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2008, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2008, The Post-Standard

   Life is hard enough. We've got death, taxes ... and mystery files. If you're like me, you probably can deal with the first two calamities better than the third.
   Mystery files are the attachments your sister-in-law sends that you can't open. They're the images the school put on a CD so parents could see the class projects. They're files you find stuck in various places on your computer after your kids spend a weekend doing their My Space or Facebook stuff.
   Some things will always be a mystery -- the way your mom kept phoning you just before dinner is one of them -- but files don't have to be. You just have to remember three things:
    1. Sometimes, mystery files are simply the offspring of programs you don't have. For example, if your sister-in-law makes boring presentations using Microsoft PowerPoint and decides to send you one, you'll be getting a mystery file if you don't have PowerPoint -- or don't have a PowerPoint clone. (We'll send in the clones in a moment. Hold on.)
    2. Mystery files might be generic items your computer isn't equipped to handle. Digital photos often tumble into this category. It's an easy problem to fix, as we'll see shortly.
    3. Lastly, mystery files might be nothing more than orphans. When your computer asks (in computer terms, of course) "Who's your daddy?", these files stay mum. Your job is to match up parent and child, using a surrogate. (It's a snap. Trust me.)
   Let's deal with the missing-program syndrome first. My advice is simple: If you really need Microsoft Office and the programs it offers -- Word, Excel, PowerPoint and so on -- you should buy it. That will ward off half your computer mysteries, since you'll be able to handle all those .DOC and .PPT files (as well as many others). Be kind to your wallet and buy the student-home version of Office, which costs only about $130. You can get Office for Macs as well as Windows PCs.
   But if you'd like to save even more -- how about not spending anything? -- forget Microsoft Office and get OpenOffice, a totally free clone of Microsoft Office. (But power users should note that OpenOffice doesn't have a Microsoft Access clone.) You can get OpenOffice for Windows, Macs and Linux. Read more here: www.technofileonline.com/texts/tec090207.html.
   Mystery digital photos don't have to drive you back to your Brownie. Just make sure your computer has a good image viewer, and set up that viewer to handle all image files. (Look in the options or preferences of the program.) Mac OS X computers have a good image viewer already -- it's called Preview -- so no change is needed. Windows users should install Irfan View, the best free viewer I've ever seen. Get it from www.irfanview.com.
   For those occasional orphan files, Mac and Windows users have a simple technique of finding surrogate parents. In Windows, hold down the Shift key and right click on the orphan file. Mac users should click once on the orphan and press Cmd-I. In each case, look for "Open with:" and choose a program from the list. (You can search for a program, too.)
   Avoid any "Always open with" checkboxes unless you're sure of yourself. And if you're feeling lost, simply drag the file to the icon of any candidate program and drop it there. You'll see right away if you've found the file a good home.